In late August 2008, the Congolese army (FARDC) and the rebel group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), resumed heavy fighting in the most recent episode of more than a decade of war in eastern Congo. The Congolese army was sometimes aided by Congolese militia known as Mai Mai and PARECO, as well as by a Rwandan armed group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), some of whose leaders participated in the 1994 genocide.
Over the years, the war has involved different national and local armies and rebel movements, but there is always one constant: abuses against civilians by all parties. People in eastern Congo have been forced to flee their homes repeatedly, sometimes for a few weeks, sometimes for months or years. There are over 1 million people displaced from their homes in the province of North Kivu alone, with limited assistance from humanitarian agencies, which often cannot reach those in need because of ongoing fighting. Killed, injured, raped, and looted - it is the people of eastern Congo who pay the price of the ongoing conflict.
On November 18, 2008, in a public plea to international leaders, 44 local civil society groups voiced the concerns of many who live in eastern Congo: "We are anxious, afraid and utterly traumatized by the constant insecurity in which we live," their letter said. "We don't know which saint to pray to; we are condemned to death by all this violence and displacement. We have been abandoned. Who will protect us? Who will help us?"
The stories below detail just some of the heartbreaking reality of their lives. (All names of victims and witnesses are pseudonyms.)
1. Soldiers killing, raping, and looting: "I don't know how much longer we'll last."
In late October 2008, the CNDP rebels pressed their advantage and moved south toward the North Kivu provincial capital of Goma. Congolese army soldiers panicked and fled toward Kanyabayonga in the north and toward Goma and Minova in the south, creating chaos in their wake. Poorly trained, these soldiers are not regularly paid, nor are they adequately supplied with food and other materials. On the night of October 29, they rampaged through Goma, killing at least 20 civilians, including five children, and injuring more than a dozen others. They raped over a dozen women and girls and they looted shops and homes alike. Some stole vehicles to transport themselves and their pillaged goods out of Goma.
Twenty-year-old Marie and her 57-year-old grandmother Berthe were both raped on the night of October 31 by men in Congolese army uniforms in a village just outside of Goma.
"Two soldiers came up to me and asked me to give them my goats. I said I didn't have any. They then asked for my pigs. Again, I said I didn't have any. They turned to another woman and asked her for her beans and bananas. She gave what she had, and the soldiers told me to carry the bananas for them into the hills. When we got to the hill, one of the soldiers pushed me to the ground. He put the blunt side of his machete on my neck and the handle of his rifle on my chest. Then he raped me. When he was finished, he called the other soldier and he raped me too. Then they told me I could go. As I fled, they shot their rifles into the banana plantation. I fell to the ground, pretending I was dead. They then left and I ran back to my family."
The two soldiers who raped Marie were wearing Congolese army uniforms, and they spoke Lingala, the language spoken in western DRC. Hours later, Marie's grandmother Berthe was raped by another soldier, also wearing a Congolese army uniform, but speaking Kinyarwanda, a language spoken by Congolese people of Rwandan origin as well as by Rwandans.
"The soldier followed me and my neighbor from the main road to our village. When we got to the village, he told us to go inside a house that wasn't ours. He then called the other woman to come out with him. Seconds later, I heard three gunshots outside and my neighbor had been killed. The soldier came back inside and told me he was going to have sex with me. I asked how he could sleep with someone my age. To save myself, I told him I had AIDS and I begged him to let me go. But he refused. He pushed me onto the bed and raped me. Then he left. I tried to follow him to see which direction he fled, but I was too weak. Later that night, six other women I know were raped in the neighboring village of Kanyarutshinya. We don't know who was responsible."
Both Marie and her grandmother went to seek medical care the next day, but the health center was out of medicine. "Since I was raped, my husband has rejected me and I've been weak and traumatized," Berthe said. "But what worries us most is hunger and sickness. I don't know how much longer we'll last."
Elsewhere in North Kivu, where FDLR combatants dominated the area, they too carried out rapes and other abuses. One of the victims interviewed at a displaced persons camp was Liliane.
"One time, when I tried to go back to my village, the FDLR stopped me and raped me. They took me on the side of the road, near the village Buhuga. There were eight FDLR combatants. I was with seven other girls. All of us were raped. The other girls were from my village, but they don't live in this camp. They took us at 2 p.m. and let us go the next day at 4 p.m. We spent the night with them and then they let us go. One soldier raped me; there was one soldier for each girl. They abused us badly. They used their weapons to threaten us, but they didn't use them against us. I was 17-years-old when this happened. The other girls were 16, 17, and 18 years old. We all went to the hospital at Rutshuru after this happened. I studied until the sixth primary level, but I can't study now that I'm displaced. I just want the FDLR and the CNDP to leave so I can return home and continue my life."
2. Civilians trapped in combat zones: "Some didn't have time to flee..."
Some 250 civilians have been killed in North Kivu since late August, many of them caught in the crossfire or killed by stray bullets and shrapnel as they attempted to run from the combat. Civilians have been especially at risk due to the increased, often indiscriminate use of artillery, mortars, and other heavy weapons. While many of the latest battles have been fought in or very close to large population centers, including camps for displaced people, the fighting parties have rarely, if ever, given the populations any advance warning and enough time to flee. Sometimes armed groups have deliberately blocked populations from fleeing.
Originally from Rugari (Rutshuru territory), Pierre has lived in the displaced persons camp in Kibumba since October 2007. He was in the camp in October 2008 when the Congolese army and CNDP rebels began fighting nearby. As mortar shells fell and bullets flew in every direction, Pierre and the others in the camp hastily tried to pack up their belongings and run. Many didn't make it.
"It all happened very quickly. We saw the people from Rugari [north of Kibumba] fleeing and running towards us, and at the same time, we heard lots of gunshots. The Congolese army soldiers were retreating, with the CNDP advancing behind them. Then the mortar shells from Rwanda fell around us. Many civilians were killed and wounded. One shell fell in the camp for widows, right next to the MONUC [United Nations peacekeepers] compound. I saw the body of a woman in the camp who had been decapitated by that shell. I also saw a 17-year-old boy and a 35-year-old man, the father of six children, killed by the mortar shells. Another 65-year-old man was killed by bullet when the CNDP soldiers arrived in the camp.
"Many other civilians were killed or wounded, but I was focused on running away and didn't have time to check all the bodies. Some didn't have time to flee; those who weren't killed were blocked in Kibumba by the CNDP. We don't know if they're still alive today, but the news from there isn't good. We've heard that many of the women were raped and that the young men and boys like me were recruited by force for military service."
3. Displaced civilians: "We have to go back because we're hungry"
Displaced civilians in North Kivu rarely find enough food to feed their families. They often face the bleak choice of dying of hunger in the camps or risking their lives by returning to their farms in search of food, usually in areas controlled by one or another of the armed groups. If caught, they are likely to be accused of spying for or sympathizing with the enemy. Many are arbitrarily arrested, tortured, or mutilated; others are killed.
When heavy fighting broke out in Ntamugenga (Rutshuru territory) on August 28, Jean fled with his wife and seven children to Rubare, a few kilometers away. Because they received no food assistance, Jean decided to go back to their farm, near Ntamugenga, to look for food. Soon after he crossed into the area controlled by Nkunda's CNDP, he was stopped by eight CNDP soldiers - armed with rifles, machetes, and spears. They took Jean to a nearby house and locked him inside with 11 people, three of them women, who had been captured.
"After 30 minutes, one of the soldiers came back and said he was going to exterminate us all," Jean recalled. "He then turned to me and put his machete against my ear. He cut at my ear, slowly, slowly, back and forth. He said he would cut me, part by part, until I die. The other prisoners started to cry out, and the soldier left me to hit them on their heads with the back of his machete. He then came back to me and started to cut at the back of my neck. When the others cried out even louder, the soldier brought me and another prisoner outside. They forced the other man to lie naked on the ground while they beat him with wooden sticks and sliced his buttocks with a machete. Eventually one soldier convinced the others to let us go. I ran through the forest, with blood streaming from my neck and ear, until I reached a health center."
After Jean's wounds were treated he returned to his family in Rubare, traumatized, scarred, and still without food.
"They do this kind of thing every day against people who have fled and try to go back to their farms. Some are able to flee after they're captured and beaten; others do not make it. We have to go back because we're hungry."
4. Forced recruitment of children and adults: "If they find me, they will kill me."
All parties to the conflict in North Kivu have forcibly recruited civilians, including children, and forced them to serve as soldiers. Forced recruitment has increased in the last few months as parties, particularly the CNDP and the local militia PARECO, try to make up for combatants killed in battle. Afraid of being forcibly recruited, many young men and boys flee their homes and spend the night sleeping outside in the bush or near MONUC bases.
At least 150 children have been forcibly recruited into armed service since late August 2008, and there are reports of many others. These children have been sent to the frontlines or are used as porters, guards, or sex slaves.
Anthony was one of an estimated 50 children and dozens of adults forcibly recruited in mid-September by the rival forces, CNDP and PARECO, just outside the displaced persons camp in Ngungu (Masisi territory). His family had fled to Ngungu days earlier after the CNDP and PARECO fought in their home village of Numbi.
"Five CNDP soldiers stopped me on the road in the middle of the day. They sent me with a large group of other men and boys - some as young as 12, others as old as 40 - to Murambi where they said we would transport boxes of ammunition for the rebel soldiers. They beat us badly so we couldn't resist. When we got to Murambi, they didn't order us to transport boxes, but instead gave us military uniforms and taught us how to use weapons. Then after three days, they put us all in an underground prison. We stayed there for four days, and new recruits joined us everyday. On the fourth day, they called us out of the prison and took us to Karuba. That night, I managed to escape with two other recruits, and we ran all the way back to Ngungu. The others who remained behind were sent to Kitchanga for military training."
When Anthony and the others arrived in Ngungu, they sought refuge at the MONUC base. Like many fighters who choose to disarm or who escape forced recruitment, they were then handed over to Congolese authorities who sent them to the military intelligence prison in Goma (known as the T2) as a transit point on their way to demobilization camps. Detainees at this prison are often held for weeks or months without charge and are subjected to cruel and degrading treatment; some are tortured. After five days at the T2 without eating, Anthony managed to escape from the prison and he again sought refuge at a MONUC base in Goma.
"I want to go back to our home in Numbi," Anthony said. "But I'm scared. If the CNDP soldiers find me there, they will kill me."
5. Looting: "We are at their mercy"
The PARECO militia, one of the local armed groups often allied with the Congolese army soldiers, plunder and loot at will in the areas they control. One farmer commented: "They always mistreat people. They constantly demand money and if you don't give it they can beat you or do other horrible things. They even kill people. There is little we can say. We are at their mercy."
Few victims attempt to protect their food or other goods, but those who do, like Jeanette, end up injured or dead. Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed Jeanette at a hospital in October 2008.
"I can't remember the exact date of when it happened but it was not long ago. I was at my house getting ready to go to the fields when the PARECO came. They wanted to loot my house and steal all my things. I have almost nothing left in the world and I refused. My children have all died and I don't know where my husband is, and so that day I just could not bear to lose the few possessions I had left. I shouted at them saying, ‘No, No!' and then they shot at me from behind. The bullet entered the side of my head and came out through my eye. I fell to the ground, nearly dead. I don't know what happened after that, but somehow I ended up in the hospital. I am now blind in my left eye and I suffer constantly from headaches. I wish I had died because I don't know what life I will now lead."
6. Targeting of Rwandans, Tutsi, and alleged CNDP sympathizers: "All night long the policemen beat us."
At least 40 persons, including 12 children, have been arbitrarily arrested since combat resumed in North Kivu in late August. They were all Tutsis or were accused of sympathizing with the Tutsi-led CNDP. Most were held without charge, tortured, and only released after paying substantial bribes to the authorities. At least 18 were held at the T2 military intelligence prison.
These detainees were separated from others and forced to sleep in the corner used as a toilet, where others urinated and defecated. They were routinely beaten, both by Congolese soldiers who were themselves detained at the prison and by the prison guards. Others were held at police prisons, the prison at the mayor's office, and secret detention centers in Goma. Some were transferred outside of Goma, including to Kinshasa and Bukavu.
Officials have made anti-Tutsi statements on the radio, on television, and in public meetings, thus increasing fear and hatred of Congolese of Tutsi ethnicity, thought to be linked with the neighboring country of Rwanda. A Rwandan military force occupied this region between 1998 and 2002 and was responsible for many human rights abuses.
Rwandans who study or work in Goma have also been targeted by civilians and state authorities; fear has caused some of them to give up jobs or chances to study in Congo.
On October 20, three Rwandan Tutsi who were students at a school in Goma, 15, 16, and 17 years old, were attacked and beaten by a hostile crowd in a Goma market.
"We were just looking for used shoes to buy in the market but the people there accused us of being spies for Nkunda. Then the police arrived, and they paraded us through the streets, while the crowds shouted at us: ‘You Tutsis are a bad people. You are the flies that we must always crush.' When we arrived at the Kibabi police station, the policemen there beat us with rubber strips from tires. They then sent us to the prison at the mayor's office. There they made us take our pants off to see if we were circumcised. They pulled at our noses and penises, saying we had elongated penises because we're Tutsi. All night long, the policemen beat us with their wooden sticks and the handles of their rifles, still accusing us of being spies for Nkunda. But they had no proof. In the morning, they took us back to the Kibabi police station and we were eventually released after our families each paid 50 dollars."
Like many other Rwandans who live, study, or work in Goma, these three youths left for Gisenyi on the other side of the border. "We want to go back to school in Goma because we can't afford the school fees in Rwanda," said one of the youths arrested. "But we have to abandon our studies unless we want to be killed in Goma."